This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let's take a moment to reflect on the history of civil rights and the struggle for equality in Connecticut.
I can remember walking through an ancient cemetary in Windsor, one of the oldest burying grounds in the state, and finding two old and neglected markers near the edge, far away from most of the others buried there. Each gave a first name, followed by the word "Slave." That's where we started, even here. Slavery was finally completely outlawed in Connecticut in 1848, but that doesn't change the fact that there were, in fact, slaves here for a long time. Indeed, slaves were among the earliest residents of the Connecticut colony; the first mention of them occurs in 1639.
New London was a major point of departure for slave ships in the 18th Century, but in 1840 it became the scene of the Amistad trial, in which Africans who had been captured by the Spanish and had siezed control of their transport vessel were eventually allowed to go free. It was a major turning point in the abolitionist movement, which had many notable figures from Connecticut.
Vibrant African-American communities existed all over the state, but especially in the cities, as this page of exhibits from the Hartford Black History Project shows. One of the more interesting customs of Connecticut slaves and then of the manumitted black community was the election of the "Black Governor." A lot of light has recently been shed on this practice, which died out in the 19th Century.
Black volunteers formed the Connecticut 29th and 30th Regiments during the Civil War. They served in Virginia and Texas during the last two years of the war. Following the Civil War and the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, black men eventually received the vote.
The clout of minority communities grew as their population increased, but the road to real political parity was a long, hard slog, as this timeline of civil rights laws shows. At times during the 20th century, frustration at the glacial pace of change boiled over into racial violence in the cities. This happened especially in the tumult of the late 1960s.
Some major steps forward were made, however. Connecticut did contribute to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Dr. King himself came to Hartford in 1959, where he delievered a speech that may be an earlier version of his later "I Have a Dream" speech. During this time more members of previously disenfranchised groups worked their way to high office. Abraham Ribicoff and Ella Grasso are excellent examples of this. Cities like Hartford began to see their first nonwhite mayors, and nonwhites were elected to Congress and the General Assembly. The landmark Sheff .v O'Neill decision of 1996 ruled as unconstitutional the de facto segregation of urban nonwhites from suburban whites, although little has been done to remedy this situation. Recently Connecticut took another step towards guaranteeing equal rights for all by passing a law granting civil unions to gay couples, which many see as a step towards full marriage.
We still have a long way to go. Poverty, crime and failing schools, issues all too often ignored by the state and federal governments, are mammoth problems for minority communities all across the country. So today, the day when we remember a great American hero, we all ought to reflect on what we can do to advance the mission of equality and justice for everyone.